Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Craft of the Story: An Interview with Gregory Spatz

Interview by Lisa Sumner

Gregory Spatz is the author of a new story collection Half as Happy, published by Engine Books.  Half as Happy is smart, spooky, surprising, and so good that the writing is almost invisible.  The stories in Half as Happy don’t offer up easy epiphanies, but they do move into the space made when the characters’ lives get torn open in one way or another; the writing is precise, and eerily good.  Spatz has published three novels (Inukshuk, Fiddler’s Dream, and No One But Us) and a previous short story collection, Wonderful Tricks.  His stories have been published in The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, Shenandoah, Epoch, Kenyon Review, and New England Review.  He has received a Michener Fellowship and an NEA Fellowship in Literature.  Spatz attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and teaches writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Washington.  And if all that isn’t enough, Spatz plays the fiddle in the bluegrass band John Reischman and the Jaybirds, and fiddle and mandolin in Mighty Squirrel.  Music and musical instruments figure in many of the stories in Half as Happy.  I was curious about how Spatz’s role as a musician influenced his writing….and how he balanced his writing and music with a teaching career.

Lisa Sumner: Short stories, novels, teaching, music…how do you manage it all?  Do you sleep?

Gregory Spatz:  I probably sleep a lot less than I should!  The short answer is, I have a very supportive wife and family and I try very hard not to waste time.  I fail regularly, of course, but…I don’t watch network television ever, and I try not to get too discouraged or impatient when my teaching schedule temporarily consumes all of my free time, or when being on the road with the band makes it difficult to keep up with writing or school work, or when writing for hours at a time makes me get out of practice on the violin.  I try to be calm and realistic and to reassure myself that there will be time to catch up later on whatever’s slipping today.   There’s always summer and sabbatical leave...long weekends.  I go slowly and I’m very persistent and stubborn.  I used to think that someday I’d have to grow up and make some hard choices—play music or write.  Write or teach.  I think it’s safe to say that at this point I’m probably too old to grow up, so I’ll have to keep writing, teaching and playing because I love each in its own way and together they probably create the balance in my life that enables me to get anything done at all.  Yes, I sometimes wonder if I’d be a better writer if I didn’t also gig all the time, or if I’d be a better player if I didn’t spend so many hours writing.  But just as often I wonder if I’d play music at all if I didn’t write, or if I’d write a word if I didn’t play music because the two things have this integrated, symbiotic relationship at the center of my life.  But teaching...I know for sure that if I didn’t teach I’d be homeless on the street, so I don’t wonder about that so much.

LS: How does being a musician inform your writing?

GS: When I was very young and first started paying attention both to stories and music, I made zero distinction between the two things.  Whatever I heard—The Beatles, Zappa, Mendelssohn, Boccherini, Vivaldi, The Clancy Brothers, Fairport Convention, my parents singing and playing (those were my favorites)—it became instantly and totally meshed with whatever story I was lost in.  It was something of a rude awakening later to learn that this private realm of intertwined meaning I was always getting out of reading and listening was all my own invention.  Practically speaking though, like in terms of process, I approach both music and writing, kind of the same way.  I listen.  I try to hear what’s happening in a song harmonically and rhythmically in order to know what my role there should be.  And the same for fiction: line by line I’m listening for some kind of meaning or underlying harmonic logic; for tension, rhythm and pacing scene-to-scene.  By choosing only the right words and details I’m trying to be sure that the characters featured in any scene are given the kind of invisible but rock-solid support a great band provides a soloist.  For me, it’s all about hearing and listening, as I’m writing—and not just to the words on the page.  Whatever songs I’ve been working on are also constantly playing in the back of my head at a low volume—like they’re the emotional subtext, invisible soundscape or dreamscape, for the words on the page.  Likewise, when I’m playing I’m often off in my head visiting with scenes, characters and feelings in the thing I’m writing.

LS: Narrative point-of-view is just beautifully handled in your stories.  What guides your decision-making about who tells your stories?

GS: I spend a lot of time thinking about point-of-view, when I’m reading or thinking about fiction.  In fact, I teach a class every few years where we do nothing but examine point-of-view and the many different ways an author can choose to approach his/her work, breaking down the familiar categories of first, third, second, plural first etc., into further and further sub-categories, some based on the form of address or occasion for story-telling (interior monologue vs. dramatic monologue vs. letter/diary narration), others based around the amount of irony in the narrator’s tone or stance (i.e. how much more fully is the reader invited to understand the narrator’s situation than he/she understands it him/ much distance does the narrator have from the story events, and how do we know any of this?).  My hope is that by focusing so intently on this one aspect of craft, beginning writers feel stretched and challenged, encouraged to take risks, and that later they’ll have this handy tool for revising and critiquing their work and understanding how to take it further.

LS: But isn’t there some risk that this kind of over-focus can become a little distracting...isn’t making too much of point-of-view, in isolation from other aspects of craft, a little misleading?

GS: Definitely.  I try to remind my students of that— point-of-view decisions have zero primacy and should rarely come first.  They shouldn’t be thought of separately from all the other things an author thinks about as he/she begins work on a new story.  I mean, if you choose to go that way—if you give yourself a formal challenge by taking on some viewpoint technique you’ve never used before, just because you want to try it out—of course, that’s great.  But generally, in my own stories anyway, that’s not how it works.  I’ll think about characters first—who’s in the story, whose story is it and who’s likely to be the best/most interesting person to tell it—and then more or less simultaneously, what’s happening in the story?  Where is the main tension?  What’s the main trouble, what are the visual images I’m cuing from, where’s the emotional core, what’s the idea/theme I’m teasing out?  By thinking about these things I’ll arrive at a starting point and a tone for telling the story.  For me, this is possibly the most important thing for a story: beginning in the right place and with the right tone—finding the portal into the action at exactly the moment where enough is revealed and enough remains mysterious about the story’s subject and characters so that the reader is both grounded and piqued (or puzzled or worried).  Viewpoint arises almost automatically out of those other considerations: who’s telling the story, where does it begin and what is the teller’s relationship to the main story action.  If I’ve got those aspects of the story in focus, the point-of-view strategy will follow naturally and organically enough.  So as obsessive as I am about tracking point-of-view as I read and think about (and teach) fiction, once I get to work on a new story, all that thinking goes away.  I just focus on the characters and what’s happening in the story, and let the point-of-view choices come automatically from that.

LS: One of my favorite stories in Half as Happy is “The Bowmaker’s Cats.”  It’s an intriguing story because I had never even thought about bowmaking; and then you use an unusual first-person plural narrator.  Can you talk about this choice?

GS: For the longest time I had only the opening 2-3 pages of that story in a file on my hard drive and no good idea for what to do with the rest of it.  I was most interested, in the beginning, in writing something that celebrated all of my fondness for really exquisite, gorgeous violin bows, and the arcane process of making them—trying to put into words something like the feeling I get looking at and handling a really amazing violin bow.  We have plenty of stories and novels which romanticize the beauty and mystery of violins (and the holy grail narratives attached to them)—for the most part the reading public is pretty familiar with and accepting of these stories, but knows next to nothing about violin bows.  It’s an interesting lopsidedness in the public perception: everyone in the reading world knows the name Antonio Stradivari—some people might even know of Amati and Guarneri—but not many people could tell you the first thing about an important bowmaker.  Bows and bowmakers are under-appreciated and under-recognized to the point that they are in a sense “invisible.”  And yet, from a player’s perspective, the bow is every bit as important as the violin.  So, I began by wanting to celebrate these exquisite, artful and under-appreciated objects: violin bows.  And then as the story developed, that theme of visibility and invisibility became the central driving force—a way to open the space between a violin bow as a piece of art in and of itself and as a tool in the hands of a musician for making music; between the mechanics and artistry of bowmaking and the physical essence of a finished bow.  The ultimate question of course and the one I would never attempt to answer but which I hope is somehow embodied in all the mysterious disappearances and reappearances in the story: how does any kind of art ever exist or get beyond itself?  How does music finally move beyond a collection of tones and pitches perfectly executed by one flawed human being in order to become something greater—something sublime and moving?  How does a bow made by a pair of flawed and fallible human hands appear to the player with all the visual elegance of a piece of “candy in the brain” and then how does it become a tool to implement those sublime sounds...and how do those sounds literally lift us out of ourselves and into something greater and inexplicable?  There are no answers to these questions, I think.  There’s something invisible at the core of it all (surrounding it all?) and its invisibility is a necessary component of its power; the more technically and exactingly we try to describe it, the more it eludes us and eludes description.  The viewpoint, the plural first “we” voice for the story, was essential to all of this.  A more fixed central identity within the story would have grounded it in a single subjectivity and probably limited me from exploring all the metaphysical disappearance and reappearance stuff.  Maybe too the choice had something to do with my experiences playing in groups of musicians.  Music is generally much more social and collaborative than writing—especially any kind of ensemble playing, which really requires giving over yourself and melding with others, losing your ego/identity to the group temporarily.  In the band I play with most regularly—John Reischman and the Jaybirds—even when all five band members are in one room together rehearsing or recording, focusing hard on the music, quite often someone will look up and say, “Hey, is everyone here?  I thought someone...”  And then looking around again to verify that we’re all present, will continue, “That’s weird!  We’re all here.  I thought someone was missing!”  It’s happened often enough to convince me that the sum of us playing together is actually a collective sixth entity in which all of us are included and which none of us actually is or has ever seen.  At times it can feel like a missing sixth band member.

LS: I can’t pick just one favorite story from Half as Happy, but “String,” which closes the collection, is powerful and one of my favorites.  How did you arrive at the shifting narrative point-of-view for this story, which begins with two cousins playing a prank gone horrendously wrong?

GS: I had that opening scene in mind for a very long time.  I wanted to write about the highway prank the two brothers/cousins play—it was one of those ideas that, when I first encountered it (I think I must have read or heard about it somewhere; I played my share of pranks as a kid, but never anything this dramatic or involved!) it was so familiar, I felt almost like I’d already written the story.  So for years, I had it in mind to write that scene with the prank.  And since it’s a prank that requires at least two people working in tandem, and with a kind of one-ness of purpose, once I finally got underway with writing it, the plural first seemed like a natural enough choice.  I wanted them to be good kids with a weird past...driven by boredom, as kids who do these things so often are.  So I wrote that scene and then I let the story sit for a long time.  I thought about it and looked at it for clues about how to proceed, and eventually I realized that the story’s secret was in the string itself.  I needed to keep “stringing” together story sections which followed naturally out of the brothers’ initial prank—to show how that one initial action grows outward into other peoples’ lives.  Any kid who’s ever played a prank (unless that kid is a sociopath) can tell you that a willful ignorance to (and disregard for) the real impact of that prank upon other people is a temporary blindness essential to going through with the prank itself.  You play the prank in order to learn more about how your actions impact others and to test your very limited effect on the world around you.   The results can be startling and disillusioning.  So I wanted to let the story learn, as the kids learn, how that blindness lifts, by giving the people affected by the prank their own fully realized sections and their own stories to tell.  And then to keep the story visually unified I gave each section its own pieces of string/rope/cord, all serving different purposes from beginning to end.

LS: Your stories are firmly realistic, yet there are moments in the stories when you seem to approach a more surrealist or magic realist style...can you talk about this?

GS: I think most of my work has at least one foot solidly in the style of the psychological realists because that’s where I began as a writer and a reader.  The books and authors that first inspired me, moved me and made me feel like I had something to say, all center strongly around tracking the emotional inner-lives and psychological conditions of their main characters—shaping stories out of real-seeming events for those characters, and putting names/definitions to feelings and experiences (many of which had eluded me until I saw them articulated) along the way.  I’m thinking particularly of work by Jane Smiley, James Agee, Alice Munro, James Joyce, Richard Ford, William Maxwell, Andre Dubus, David Huddle and my teacher Thomas Williams.  But then, as time passed, my tastes and interests broadened.  Some of this had to do with responding to students of mine who had a real gift for magic and over-the-top humor in their own work—needing to find good models for them in their work, and wanting to incorporate books/authors that would inspire those students and keep them engaged.

LS: Isn’t it kind of an unspoken given of MFA and undergrad workshop cultures, and for how-to writing-craft manuals as well, that most of the “rules,” tips and advice you’ll come across for “good” writing are actually rules, tips and advice for writing good fictional realism?

GS: For sure.  There’s that cultural bias, and yet the bias also makes a certain amount of sense, too.  In the way art classes focus on life drawing and learning to get an exact likeness and music lessons begin with the basics of good tone and timing, beginning writing classes tend to give the same kind of primacy to learning the essentials of making plausible three-dimensional characters, giving them well-grounded psychologically accurate motives, and then placing them in clear, real-seeming conflict with other recognizable and fully drawn characters.  It’s all good and useful stuff—more or less the rudiments of any good fiction— but taken too far it gives an unfair privilege to students whose natural inclinations and aesthetics align themselves more easily with realism.  Over the years I’ve seen enough students (fellow students at Iowa and students of my own) who feel out of sync with the aesthetics of realism and thus disenfranchised by a model of teaching which privileges it, that I’ve felt a need to start devising ways to work around it and be more inclusive in my classes and workshops.  At the same time though, aside from all of this, I was getting tired of the ways in which psychological realism was limiting my own work and making it feel too familiar and repetitive.  I was starting to wonder: if a piece of fiction isn’t doing something magical, something exceptional, weird and more than real, why should it exist at all?  Isn’t life “real” enough already?  Who needs more of that?  Anyway, fiction which purports to be “realistic” it actually realistic, or is its “verisimilitude” mostly achieved by sticking to one narrow and familiar, culturally-condoned (often white, often male) subjectivity and set of perceptions?  Who gets to say what’s real and what isn’t after all?  Isn’t fiction supposed to be more challenging and, well, fictional?  Is it enough to go on putting names to feelings, giving definitions to experience, shaping those experiences into stories?  Certainly it’s something, but can’t there be more?  I found myself increasingly excited about the experimental and non-narrative and magic-leaning writers I was assigning in my classes—Calvino, Kelly Link, James Welch, Steven Millhauser, Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, Marilynne Robinson, Haruki Murakami, Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, Stuart Dybek.  And over time, that interest started getting more and more of a foothold in my own writing, resulting in many of the stories you see in Half as Happy which do, as you note, definitely push for some kind of release from the limits of psychological realism.  Inukshuk, the novel I finished more or less at the same time that I was wrapping up work on these stories, has a similar kind of bent with an historical thread that at times seems to magically overtake one of the central character’s day-to-day life.   Realism is essential.  It’s great.  I still think that.  The fiction I love has to be grounded, first and foremost. But then...yes, I guess I kind of do hope it will lift off to somewhere else entirely.

LS: Are you working on another collection?  Do you work on stories individually, or do you usually have a vision of a larger body of work?

GS: I’ve always worked on stories individually without any real vision for an overarching unity or a larger body of work.  I would love someday to be able do that—write stories deliberately constructed to connect with each other, contain echoes and create a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.   Some of my all-time favorite books do exactly that—Haurki Murakami’s After the Quake, Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago, James Joyce’s Dubliners, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad.  For me, most of the time, much as I may love characters from one story or another and feel convinced, as I wrap up working on that story that there must be more stories possible featuring those same characters, every time I’ve just doesn’t happen.  Somehow, when I finish with a story I seem to finish with all dramatic possibilities for the people in it.  They may go on to have rich and interesting lives in some parallel universe, but not in any stories of mine.   I don’t know why this is.  Maybe I just need to try a harder and be more patient.  Maybe this should be my next project!

Lisa Sumner is a teacher and writer living in coastal South Carolina.  She is a voracious reader and writes about books at her blog Bibliophiliac.


  1. This is a fantastic interview! I found myself wishing I could study POV with Spatz! As a relatively recent MFA grad, I appreciate what he's saying about opening up workshop space for work outside of strict realism. At the same time, as a reader, my preference lies solidly in realism--I would answer his question of "Isn't life real enough already?" with the old paradigm of holding up a mirror--there's something irresistible about gazing and gazing at ourselves.

  2. Thanks Elizabeth! Glad you liked it. And of course I totally agree -- not only is the mirror irresistible, it's essential. But it also isn't really an either-or choice: fiction can be real and truthful and revealing and magical at the same time.

  3. Not only did I love this interview because I teach both music and writing, and have found so much commonality between the arts, but also because of the "magic" in any art that is "real." A philosophy professor was quite shaken to discover in our lessons that certain aspects of vocal production could not be logically proven, but were nevertheless "the truth."

  4. That's interesting Carol....There are so many instances of writers who also practice another art (painting, drawing, sculpture, etc). If nothing else, that gives a writer another area of experience to explore in the work, but I think Greg's stories are richer for his life as a musician. I love the fact that he plays stringed instruments, and "strings" run through his short stories....